Whits and pieces . . .

I've been reading Louis de Bernière’s wonderful novel of life in early 20th-century Turkey, Birds Without Wings (2004). His writing is beautiful and impresses me much more than his more famous Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

But I flinched when I ran into this on p. 146: “as a mob they were individually not a wit superior to hyenas.”

Here’s what I’ve written about this point on my Web site: “If you still have all your wits about you, could it be said that your mental powers have diminished ‘not a wit’? No, for the traditional expression is ‘not a whit.’ ‘Whit’ is an old word meaning ‘bit,’ surviving only in this and similar expressions like ‘not one whit.’”

When an old word survives only in a single idiom like this, it is very likely to puzzle speakers and writers and tempt them to substitute a more familiar word that makes more sense to them.

Other examples (traditional word in parentheses):

beyond the pail (for pale)
begs (for beggars) belief
dire straights (for straits)
bear the butt (for brunt)
slight (for sleight) of hand
midrift (for midriff)
wheelbarrel (for wheelbarrow)
beckon call (for beck and call)
fowl (for fell) swoop
hew (for hue) and cry
reeking (for wreaking) havoc
wile (for while) away
bottles (for boggles) the mind

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